A new series of occasional blogs on higher education trends in different countries and issues facing European universities starts by looking at Germany. I have Sweden and the UK lined-up on the horizon and hope the blogs help increase understanding on what’s happening in in higher education around Europe.

NOT the start to 2013 that German higher education expected, as the country’s science and education minister Annette Schavan resigned after the University of Düsseldorf ruled that she had plagiarised parts of her thesis and revoked her doctorate.

But it wasn’t the only story making the headlines about Germany’s universities.

QUIET REVOLUTION

For while Schavan’s 1980 PhD thesis rebounded on Chancellor’s Angela Merkel’s government, a quiet revolution taking place in Bavaria and Lower Saxony to abolish university tuition fees in the last two German states still charging them.

Incoming education and research minister Johanna Wanka was an advocate of fees in Lower Saxony[/caption]But let’s start with political drama: Christian Democrat Johanna Wanka replaced Schaven as Germany’s new education and research minister in February.

The 61-year-old East German politician is no stranger to universities having been minister of higher education and research in Lower Saxony, and before that in Brandenburg.

One of her first pledges was “to boost the reputation of higher education by granting institutions maximum autonomy and promoting their ability to control their own affairs”, according to University World News.

FEES REVOLT

But a popular revolt against tuition fees saw Wanka’s home state of Lower Saxony and Bavaria become the last two states to abandon charging university students around €1,000-a-year.

So despite the new minister being a keen advocate of fees to ‘top-up’ state funding of universities, the German experiment of charging students is over – at least for the foreseeable future.

The move brings Germany closer to the Nordic countries and away from sharp rises in tuition fees elsewhere – most notably England!

POPULAR DESTINATION

One result might be to make German universities even more popular with students from other countries as they also benefit from Germany’s no tuition fees policy.

Germany is already the third most popular study destination in the world for international students – behind only the USA and UK – with 250,000 international students.

But it wants more, particularly in key areas like science, technology and engineering which are vital to power Germany’s strong industrial base. This is despite record numbers going into higher education since conscription ended and compulsory secondary schooling was shortened from 13 to 12 years.

INVESTING IN R&D

And it is not just students it is after, for Germany has been pumping money into research and development, boosting salaries and making the country more attractive to top talent.

Between 2005 and 2010, the number of jobs in R&D went up by 15% and industry increased research and development expenditure by 21%, while the federal government upped R&D investment from €9 billion in 2005 to approximately €13.8 billion in 2012 – an increase of 53%.

The result: between 2005 and 2009 the number of non-German scientists working in Germany increased by a third!

Now more students are following. China and India are obvious recruitment targets, so are students from other European countries.

Language barriers are a problem, however, as only 10% of master’s courses are currently taught in English and you need to speak a reasonable level of German, even if you find a suitable course taught in English.

DAAD_450-33_white_white
So the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) realises it has its work cut out to convince more European students to study at its universities, as Dr Andreas Hoeschen, Director of DAAD’s London Office, told me.

In the UK, for example, DAAD is sponsoring 43 junior lecturers in British universities “funded by us to teach German, or German politics and history and we’re offering more scholarships to attract the top talent from abroad to Germany”.

More courses are now taught in English, but students who hope to find work and settle must learn German.

IMMIGRATION LAWS

“We’ve also liberalised our immigration laws and we’re very confident that we will increase the number of international students,” said Dr Hoeschen.

And while some mutterings can be heard about charging non-EU students, as happened in Sweden two years when international student numbers dropped dramatically, a more likely scenario seems to be the federal government contributing financially to the tuition of international students, who at the moment are funded by the regional states.

Dr Bernt Armbruster, a freelance consultant and former head of public and international relations at the University of Kassel, said: “Internationalisation at home is a key part of Germany’s higher education strategy, and so despite the pressure on places German universities are keen to have an international mix on their courses.”

OUTBOUND STUDENT MOBILITY

What perhaps sets Germany apart from some other European countries is the equally strong commitment to encouraging German students to study abroad – with €72million set aside in 2010 to support a fully portable needs-based maintenance funding scheme (BAföG) by the federal government.

The maintenance grants and loans are available at undergraduate and master’s level for full degree study at universities inside the EU as well as study abroad period of a maximum of 12 months outside the EU.

And they seem to be working, with the figures (for 2010) showing 30,586 BAföG-supported outbound students – nearly double that of two years before.

About 40% of the €72million goes into ‘excellence’ scholarships, while 60% goes to German universities to set-up study abroad initiatives, including double-degree programmes.

“It is important to give our universities incentives if we want to achieve high numbers of German students abroad,” said Dr Hoeschen.

“WHY DO WE DO IT?

“Employability is a key element. Inter-cultural dexterity and ability to function in a new cultural context is vital for the globally aware citizens we need; and studying abroad exposes German students to environments where there is an obligation to learn English.

“The demand is there and the grants and loans make it much more attractive to our students.”

Seems pretty far-sighted to me, and I know Universities UK and the British Council are interested in learning from the DAAD experience to encourage more British students to venture abroad for at least part of higher education experience.

For more information see:

* Education minister stripped of doctoral titleUniversity World News, 7 February 2013

* New education and research minister sworn in after Schavan resigns
University World News, 15 February 2013

* Bavaria to scrap tuition feesUniversity World News, 28 February 2013

* In the global competition for smart minds, Germany grows its catch